Why federations should remain neutral

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The “contract” federations have with their stakeholders – donors, agencies, synagogues and the community at large – is one explicitly based on philanthropy, community building and the concept of Jewish unity. It is not nor has it ever been re­presented as primarily a political contract.

No federation board member is ever appointed because of his or her politics, not on domestic issues, not on issues related to Israeli politics. It is an unwritten rule of nominating committees that discussion of political affiliation is off the table. Board members of federations have therefore no individual or collective mandate, neither from the community nor from those who chose them, to insert public policy issues into the federation agenda beyond those that impact the well-being of the philanthropic enterprise and the communal system.


Were federations a political “congress” of the community, then elections would be held, potential board members would be required to submit a statement of principles or platform and the individual votes of existing board members would be matters of record and open to community scrutiny. However, that is not how the Jewish philanthropic game is played in North America.

Fortunately, on both the left and the right, within and without the Jewish Zionist camps, there are talented, sophisticated and successful organizations that can accommodate and represent a wide range of political positions to the exclusion of alternative positions. However, it is only federations that represent themselves as a community table where all can feel welcome and political and theological differences are left at the door. The specialness of federations, as a sanctuary for programmatic and philanthropic collaboration within diversity, is a most precious aspirational goal.

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Rules, of course, always have exceptions and extraordinary circumstances arise where a federation position might be taken on a contentious political issue. I would however posit a three part test for such instances:

1. Necessity. The issue has existential import where a failure to act would lead by the agreement of all to dire and near-immediate negative results.


2. Consensus. There is a perceived supermajority of Jews in the community who agree on both the need to act and the proposed remedy.

3. Efficacy and Worthiness. There is a widely held and reasonable expectation that the results will justify the disruption of traditional communal arrangements and norms.

I would suggest that in regard to the Iran deal this three-part test has not been met:

First, on a daily basis, important elements of the Israeli intelligence and defense establishment are identified as questioning the existential ramifications of the deal.

In addition, despite broad assertions to the contrary, no detailed, peaceful alternative to the present deal has yet to be proposed.

Second, no evidence-based argument can be made that a Jewish consensus exists or can even be forged on the issue. In most communities, aggressive soundings of Jewish public opinion has not yet been undertaken. There is “education” underway (some fair, some biased) but less is to be found in the way of systematic feedback mechanisms. National public opinion polls vary, but all further confirm the absence of anything which even approaches consensus.

Last, the day after a presidential veto is either sustained or overridden, what’s next on the geo-political scene will remain uncertain. However, what can be assumed is that putting the Jewish communal pieces back together will be a Herculean task that might yet end in a Samsonian tragedy. The ill winds unleashed in the summer of 2015 will carry over into 2016 and beyond.

Federation boards are well advised to think and act carefully with a clear sense of both history and their role.

Bob Hyfler has served the Jewish community in senior federation and foundation roles for 30 years and holds a doctorate in political science. He can be reached at [email protected] This opinion piece is reprinted with permission from ejewishphilanthropy.com.

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